The situation just south of Lady Bird Lake looks a little, well, fishy.
It is not, however, quite what it appears to be.
The right-turn lane to Barton Springs Road off of South Congress Avenue, used for decades by drivers looking to head southwest out of downtown, closed in 2015 when renovations began on the abandoned furniture store and former warehouse on the northwest side of that intersection. The yellow-and-white plastic barricades blocking the “free right” turn lane force people to make a sharper turn there now than they could before, slowing traffic and increasing backups to the north at times. Most people probably assumed the closure was temporary.
In fact, the lane reopened for a time when the construction project on the three-story building hit a lull. But then work began again, and the barricades were erected once more to block the turn lane. The surprise came in February, when Yeti, the cooler king, finally opened its combo showroom and bar right next to the turn lane.
The barriers stayed up, seemingly giving Yeti a nice and seemingly free front yard for its new facility. After a while, several readers responding to our “Austin Answered” call for questions began to wonder what was up: Was the trendy company, or perhaps its landlord, Cielo Property Group, getting a break from the city?
No, the city says, although what now appears to be permanent closure of the right-turn lane and the installation I’m about to tell you about no doubt will be a boon to the store and bar.
Cielo says that it paid normal fees to the city for closing the lane during the first part of the construction project, and then turned things over to Yeti. City officials said the two companies paid a total of about $105,000 in fees for the use of that lane during construction.
But the city maintains that all of this, including the lane closure, is related to a much bigger deal — the redevelopment over the next many years of 118 very valuable acres just south of the lake, including the newspaper property where I am typing. And the intersection change, they say, was in the works long before Yeti entered the picture.
“It’s an easy misperception for folks to assume that Yeti is getting away with some sweet deal,” said Alan Holt, a planner with the city of Austin who has been immersed in the “South Central Waterfront Initiative” for years. The Austin City Council in June 2016 approved a 114-page master plan for the redevelopment of that area, including about 20 acres of green space. “But this is all public right of way and the intention is to create a public space” not unlike what New York City has done with parts of Times Square.
“Of course, for now, it’s neither fish nor fowl,” Holt told me. The bat sculpture that has stood there since 1998, called “Nightwing,” has a sort of fowl quality to it. But, as we all know (right?), bats are flying mammals.
But I digress. What the city plans to do is convert into a plaza a good chunk of that intersection, encompassing the erstwhile turn lane, the traffic island that is home to the purple bat art and a pie-shaped piece of pavement extending west to near the Hyatt hotel entrance. And the intention is to seed further creation of such pedestrian-friendly areas as the various chunks of the waterfront area redevelop over the next 15 years or so.
The problem for that project is that the 118 acres — roughly bound by South First Street, the lake and Bouldin Creek south of Riverside Drive — is made up of 31 privately held parcels and just one city-owned property, where the One Texas Center office building sits. And, oh yes, the few existing streets.
So the city’s ability to influence what gets built there — in the spirit of that master plan — is a matter of carrots and sticks, and perhaps setting what it sees as a good example. That’s where the Yeti corner comes in.
The city has a vision of what it would build there, if it had $1 million or more to use in this manner, which it doesn’t at this point. That would include creating sunken areas with vegetation and soil, what Holt calls a “rain garden,” to collect and filter runoff from the streets. There would be trees and a fancy sidewalk. “Nightwing” would remain, rotating gently in the wind. And the hard right turn people now face would be rounded off a bit to make it easier for larger vehicles to make the turn to Barton Springs.
But, lacking the money for that long-term plan, Holt said the city has designed a much cheaper “demonstration” project that should be installed in the next few weeks (he dearly hopes) and would be paid for from private sources and in-kind contributions. Holt said the Austin Parks Foundation, among others, is on board to kick in. There would be tables, chairs, planters and other removable stuff.
The city on June 3 offered a brief glimpse of this, throwing up a “pop-up plaza” at the location for a day.
This next step would be up for a year, allowing time to perhaps make the long-term version a reality. Holt said he has thought for months that he was almost there with the demo project, only to hit snags that pushed it back. In the meantime, the barriers stayed up for what seemed like mysterious reasons.
Safety, at least in part, has been part of that. The Yeti facility, which sits several feet above street level, connects to the sidewalk with a rather steep wooden staircase. From the bottom of those stairs to the curb line of the former right-turn lane is just seven feet. It is not hard to envision what tragedy might befall a reveler, or merely someone wearing awkward-but-stylish footwear, trying to descend those steps and stumbling into a vehicle making that turn at a relatively high speed.
“It’s very definitely a safety issue with Yeti there, and without Yeti there,” Holt said. “There have been a number of accidents at that free right” over the years.
So, right-turn fans, go ahead and mourn the loss of a little bit of mobility at Barton Springs and Congress. But don’t blame Yeti. They’re just in the right place at the right time.
What do you wonder about? Send us your questions at statesman.com/austinanswered.